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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Sister Street Fighter Collection
Sister Street Fighter Collection
BCI Eclipse // Unrated // September 5, 2006
List Price: $44.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by J. Doyle Wallis | posted October 11, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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In 1974, after the success of Sonny Chiba's career defining, violent, exploitation, karate action opus The Street Fighter, Toei Studios aimed for another franchise this time with a female lead. Originally eyeing Hong Kong action star Angela Mao, when that casting fell through, Chiba suggested a young, unproven member of his Action Club stunt team, Etsuko Shihomi. The first film proved to be popular enough to warrant a sequel produced and released within the same year, then another sequel under a year later, ands finally a fourth film that bears no actual relation to the series other than the titling. In cinema history, the Japanese karate action film was a marginal genre, existing very briefly with really one susperstar (Chiba), and within its brief flourishing, the Sister Street Fighter franchise holds a firm second place as a benchmark of the genre and Shitomi its lone female star.

Chiba's Street Fighter films are notable for their pure masculinity. The combination of Chiba's manly presence and guttural, explosive fighting style made for a series that, when watched from beginning to end, can make a few more hairs develop on your chest. With a heroine at its core, the Sister Street Fighter films take on a different approach. Sure, the violence is still there, but you are no longer following the exploits of a self-serving anti-hero. With a woman at its core, the Sister Street Fighter films become more traditionally heroic and not as much about revenge or personal gain. Chiba's Terry Tsuguri wouldn't help you or beat the shit out of a mob of baddies unless it was to his benefit, but Etsuko Shihomi's Koryu Lee, she is a gal that will put her life on the line to come to your rescue.

Sister Street Fighter (1974): Koryu Lee is the favorite daughter of the virtuous Shorinji Kempo School of Karate. Her brother, Mansei, has gone missing, presumably uncovered as an agent working to bring down a Yokohama drug baron named Kakuzaki. She flies to Yokohama and starts digging into the underworld to find her brothers whereabouts. Mansei has been captured turned into Kakuzaki's resident smack guinea pig. It will take all of Koryu's skills and some help from her friends to break into the heavily fortified compound, rescue her brother , and bring Kakuzaki to justice.

First, its just pure marketing, Koryu is not literally, the sister of Chiba's Streetfighter character. That doesn't stop Sonny from making a cameo appearance which naturally involves the bulk of his cameo time in the fight finale ripping out the guts of fat henchmen. A fantastically colorful film, with that main color being blood red. How can one adequately explain the insane coolness of Kakuzaki's army of henchmen which include a mohawked guy with a zulu shield and a blowgun, venerable baddie in both Street Fighter franchises Masashi Ishibashi, an ex-priest assassin with a speargun, and the Amazon Seven, a gaggle of Thai kickboxing lasses in Fred Flinstone frocks? Truth is, you cannot. You just gotta' see it.

Sister Street Fighter: Hanging By A Thread (1974):The first sequel starts off with a bang. Secret agent is attacked by thugs. Koryu gets the lowdown from the man's dying breath, plus he's got a fake eye containing microfilm (super cool, in my book). Time to hop on the plane to Yokohama. Off to rescue Birei, the kidnapped daughter of Prof. Enmei. The big bad at the center of the evildoing is Boss Osone, who is running diamond smuggling racket by hiding the diamonds in the tender flesh of the buttocks of some female mules (and I mean that in smuggling terms). In addition to Birei, Koryu's sister is involved with Boss Osone, so that adds some double dealing and extra incentive to bring the villain down.

Like the first film, the sequel flies at you with all the action and eccentric character weirdness you could want from your exploitation action film. Where the first film had Chiba, this time out the great Yasuaki Kurata (Karate Vs. Tiger, Heros of the East) takes the second bill hero role. Kurata's character is a undercover agent who infiltrates the diamond smugglers army of martial goons. Again, one of those martial goons is Masashi Ishibashi, who appeared in every true Sister Street Fighter flick. Out of all the films, this one has my favorite action sequence, an attempted hit on Koryu which features her jumping through and apartment window and then duking it out in a rain drenched alleyway face-off.

Return of the Sister Street Fighter (1975): The formula was very much set in place, another relative of Koryu's goes missing, this time a cousin, Shirei, who leaves behind a daughter. Koryu, with the niece in tow, takes off to Yokohama to find out what happened to Shirei. It ends up her cuz has fallen prey to a underworld villain, Oh Ryu Mei, who is very much drawn from the Shek Kin Enter the Dragon mold, complete with comic book lair, fake hand, big wicker chair throne, a virtual UN of henchmen, and a reverse alchemy plan of making gold appear like other minerals for smuggling purposes.

The third and final true sequel has the same old formula but the wackiness of the characters is upped a notch, perhaps best personified by Masashi Ishibashi who's villain character looks like cheapie guitar infomercial pitchman Esteban. You know the imagination is working overtime or reading too many comic books when you are dressing up your true life Japanese Karate master in Spanish troubadour garb, with a pencil thin moustache, and a bullwhip. Kurata shows up again, this time a slightly more shady anti-hero character, an opportunist fighter lending his talents to Oh Ryu Mei. Its a fun, brisk film, but you could feel the series was running out of steam.

Sister Street Fighter: Fifth Level Fist (1976): This film is disappointing in two ways: the first is that it is a name-only Sister Street Fighter sequel, having zero connection to the rest of the series except for the casting of Etsuko Shihomi, the second failing is the film itself, which is sort of a lukewarm cross between a routine crime/karate film and a Yasujiro Ozu-ish cultural drama (apologies to master Ozu).

Etsuko Shihomi plays Kiku, a girl who is divided between parents who want to raise her traditionally and ladylike and her personal desires which lean towards karate and athletic competition. Her parents are trying to marry her off to the Minister of health, Tagaki, but he shrugs off her less than feminine extra curricular activities. After her friends Michu and Jim (Ken Wallace) get caught up in drug smuggling, Kiku wants to aid in the investigation but is given the shrug-off, so she takes matters into her own hands and uncovers a drug smuggling ring that uses a movie studio as a front.

Well, action was clearly a secondary agenda in this one. Shihomi has squat to do until the finale, even then, that action brings up a kind of disconcerting aspect of this film. What initially looks like a feminist action piece becomes almost anti-feminist in the finale. I thought the film would be about how the Kiku character was being shortchanged for having interest in martial arts and, in the end, she would come to save the day. However, they make a clear point that woman-needs-man by having Kiku fight for a bit, get captured, and then have to be rescued by her would-be suitor Tagaki, a man who previously told her that her duties should be cooking, cleaning, and taking care of a man. Its shame this film had a Sister Street tag because Shimoni's character in Fifth Level Fist is literally tied to a log in danger of being sawed in half. As an actress, she goes from playing a strong, independent, ass-kicker in the first three films to cliched damsel in distress in this not-really-sequel.

While my head swims with dreams of the alternate reality where Angela Mao took the Sister Street Fighter role, watching all four films in row (the last two for the very first time ever), I realized Shihomi's quick evolution as an actress. She really does get consistently better. Perhaps this is the main reason I lean towards the second film as my favorite. The first film is great, but Etsuko seems a little restrained and less sure, very much the fledgling ingenue. By the second film, she is in more control, cute, thoughtful, and come actiontime a great mix of gloweringly mean and powerful yet vulnerable, a combo that made Jackie Chan so endearing as an action performer. Ffith Level Fist, while not a great action film, showcases Etsuko's range and strength as an actress. With the breath of the series, you realize she was a woman fully capable of holding her own, beautiful and charming as an actor and commanding and convincing as an action heroine.

All the typical strains of the exploitation action film, copious violence, masochism, funk, flash, and trash, but having a straight-laced female hero adds a little extra dimension. One loves kung fu films for the elaboration of the action, but karate films cut to the chase- you could say they lack sophistication- and slam home the fisticuffs that are pure primal and ape brain visceral. Final note about the directors: the first three, proper films were helmed by Kazuhiko Yamaguchi (Delinquent Girl Boss: Worthless to Confess, Karate Bearfighter, Karate for Life, Karate Bullfighter, the last unrelated film was directed by Shigehiro Ozawa (The Street Fighter, Return of the Street Fighter, Street Fighter's Last Revenge).

The DVD: BCI

Picture: Anamorphic Widescreen. Well, these transfers are not so pristine that you could be fooled into thinking the films came out last year, but they do appear to be mostly clean and well-detailed. The real failing point, as much to do with age as any transfer/print fault, is the grain level and a good deal of softness. Colors appear fairly robust, and the contrast is nice and deep, bible black, with good shadow detail. Technically i didnt notice any severe compression of glaring transfer issues. An excellent job, far better than I expected because, being an exploitation fan, one suspects they are always going to get something subpar. Thankfully, BCI comes through and US fans are all the better for it.

Sound: The first film comes with three options, A 5.1 Japanese language remix, and original Mono Japanese or English language tracks. The rest of the films feature 5.1 remix or original Mono Japanese language tracks. Optional English subtitles for every film.

Now, I'm one to usually roll my eyes when a company puts an audio remix on a DVD. Part of the charm of watching a film from a different era should be the whole technical umbrella of the time period. I've found that remixes tend to sully the original tracks through the extremes of either doing too much or doing so little you wonder why they bothered. Folks, these Sister Street Fighter remixes are damn good. I was very surprised. BCI hold true to the source tracks base integrity while boosting the action and score a great deal by giving them the proper push/mixing into your system speakers. And, of course, they do the right thing by giving you the original track option, so every base is covered.

Extras: First, the packaging. You get a great fold-out case that feature every films original poster art. All of this is housed in a sturdy slipcase.--- Extensive liner note booklet. ‟TokyoScope‟ author Patrick Macias gives a brief overview of every film. Plus there are interview excepts with director Kazuhiko Yamaguchi and actor Ken Wallace. --- On the discs themselves, the only extra you get is a trailer gallery for the first, second, and fourth film. Apparently the third film's trailer is lost because it doesn't turn up on the Japanese disc release either.

Conclusion: I think BCI has done a fantastic job. The whole series comes beating down the door to your DVD deck with fine transfers, excellent packaging, and a rock-bottom price. (You want the Jpn release with no Eng subs, that'll be $40 a flick folks.) If funky fashions, ‟whatchika-whatchika‟ soundtracks, flamboyant bad guys, and action scenes that culminate in people getting their heads twisted around backwards are your thing, then you'll thank the stars that this fantastic series finally sees some good light in the US of A. It's a great exploitation franchise, one of the high points of a short lived genre, and Etsuko Shihomi is an often overlooked female action star. Now all we need are the Sonny Chiba Street Fighter films to get a similar (or even better) release.

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